Indie Rock Supergroup boygenius on Sad Girl Stereotypes and Not Treating Art Like a Product

Illustration for article titled Indie Rock Supergroup boygenius on Sad Girl Stereotypes and Not Treating Art Like a Product
Image: Lera Pentelute

There’s something ostentatious about the idea of a supergroup. Supergroups, from Emerson, Lake, & Palmer to Hollywood Vampires, carry this reputation for swaggering confidence and (traditionally) macho bravado. But boygenius, a band formed by three of the most talented rising indie rock stars working right now, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker, is a welcome addition to the dusty supergroup canon.


The three artists had long crossed paths on the touring circuit and developed a close friendship. Text threads and several emails later, they decided to form a band and chose the name “boygenius” as an ode to the space-consuming men they’d encountered often in music, those born with an unmovable (and arguably unearned) confidence about their art. Posing on the cover as a tribute to Crosby, Stills & Nash, the group seems to be winking at you with their own self-mythologizing.

In spring 2018, Dacus, Bridgers, and Baker headed to Los Angeles to record their first EP, each bringing two songs to work on and polish as a group. The result is a collection of sweet and salty indie rock that perfectly melds the three writers’ style on each track; there’s Dacus’s pretty vocal melodies on “Bite the Hand,” Bridgers’ dark dreams of being “emaciated” on the reverb-heavy “Me and My Dog,” and the Baker-special on “Stay Down” of instrumentally and emotionally building up a song so much that by its end, it feels like your heart has been thrown off a cliff.

But talking to Bridgers, Dacus, and Baker about boygenius, it’s clear that their EP wasn’t some exercise in cobbling together songs into a flashy record. As artists still early in their careers (all three are no older than 24) and as women working in an industry that somehow seeks to minimize their contributions, the members of boygenius used their studio time as a way to expand themselves. Higher notes were hit, darker material was written, and blown-out shredding techniques were discovered. And all of it came out of an environment that sounds liberating in its enthusiasm, each artist never letting the others doubt themselves too much.

A day after performing on Seth Meyers, Jezebel talked to them about what they’ve learned from each other, how to deal with boygeniuses in real life, and why each of them is more than just a Sad Girl.

JEZEBEL: When I’ve read you all talk about doing this project, I get the sense that this was a real confidence building exercise in terms of the connection you’ve made and the kinds of experimenting you could do in the studio.


LUCY DACUS: It’s helped beyond this project, too. I feel like I’m writing more freely. I feel better as a performer. I think the initial action of being together really got me out of a zone I didn’t know I was in as a solo performer where everything’s on me, like full pressure, full responsibility. And even though I’m still doing the solo stuff, I can basically access this part of my brain that says the pressure’s off, just because it has been off in this [band].

Phoebe and Julien, do you guys feel that way too? Having the pressure off yourself a bit as solo artists when you’re in this band?


JULIEN BAKER: Absolutely.

PHOEBE BRIDGERS: Yes, but the biggest takeaway for me has been that I consider you guys my peers, and I think it’s 100 percent because we’re all in a similar place in our live—we’re the same age, same gender. I have put myself in rooms of 50 year old men and technically we’re supposed to be peers, we’re collaborating on something, but it never feels that way. I feel waaayy more [like peers] collaborating with you guys. I don’t feel like the quiet one in the room who’s waiting to speak. The thing [Lucy] said about not knowing you were in that space, I didn’t know I was the quiet one in the room or that I was timid until working with you guys and throwing all my ideas at the wall.


BAKER: I feel like I’ve experienced the same thing. Obviously, I play by myself, but in collaborations or production instances, you take for granted that [people] are in some way superior to you because of their gender or their age or their influence. And then you end up conceding on things that are important to you because you feel the pressure to defer to someone you think must know better. With you guys, when we were completely in control, it sort of dismantled the hierarchy in my mind of when you should listen to someone’s idea and let it change or take precedence over your own and when you shouldn’t. Somebody else’s idea should take precedence over your own when you truly think it’s a better idea, not when you think that everybody else in the room thinks they’re superior to you and you’re afraid to dissent to it.


DACUS: Something I’ve been thinking about, too—and you guys have collaborated with more people than I have—but I think in some collaborative settings, it’s not spoken but it’s subconsciously understood that more established people are doing a collaboration wherein you’re the new tool or factor. Like, you’re the girl singing a top line on something or being this new fresh face. You’re being used as an entry way to whatever your audience is for people who are slowly becoming out of touch.

BAKER: Like, have you ever been in the room with someone and it’s been presented as if you were going to collaborate or cowrite and then you recognize that you are a sentient instrument.


You’re being used as a tool.

BAKER: Yeah, and to lend them credibility.

BRIDGERS: And they need you more than you need them, but being in the room they’re trying to convince you that that’s not what’s happening. They’re like, this is a great opportunity for you. The amount of times someone has fucking said that to me, even if the person’s sweet.


Lucy, you had mentioned before in an interview that when you were first being approached by record labels you liked comparing notes with Julien to see what she was experiencing, what she was being offered. Do you feel like, when you’re first starting, that kind of guidance is hard to find?

DACUS: Oh yeah. I remember at South by Southwest, us realizing that we were talking to the same people, like who have you met, what did they say. And it was almost a process of elimination, leading me to Matador [Records]. It was just nice to hear that within feeling weird, somebody else was feeling weird? Again, like this group, having a second body, voice, and brain doing the same thing and dispels confusion so easily that way.


BAKER: With you two, I’ve sent you both demos for the record and I talk to you both about touring, like what are you going to do about this situation, because it’s nice to have people to talk to who are your peers, who also have zero vested interest in the decision you make or how the outcome will benefit them.

What else have you guys learned from each other?

DACUS: I have been writing maybe a little more daringly, saying some stuff I would usually be like, “Oh, that’s too far.”


Like what?

DACUS: I have new songs. I might play one tonight [at Brooklyn Steel], but there’s violence in it. And I don’t have any violence in any of my music because I’ve just never wanted to put that into the world. But I feel like you guys are really good at harnessing dark energy. [Laughs]


BAKER: I feel like dark energy sounds like a spell.

DACUS: Yeah, yeah, which is not your shit.

BRIDGERS: That’s my shit.

[All giggle]

DACUS: But you guys are all really willing to use that shit, and it shows in how people respond. People are like, oh my gosh, thanks for putting words to this thing that has been this dark weight. And maybe it is a function of... [sighs] See, I don’t want to make everything about gender and being a lady, but it’s [about] not wanting to put something out there and thinking people won’t receive it, like I have to be doing something positive. But it is positive still to acknowledge bad emotions.


BRIDGERS: My song “Killer” is entirely about toxic energy and toxic feelings, and I don’t think I’ve gotten bad [reception] from it, ever. People who come up to me and understand that [song], it isn’t like, my toxic energy is affirmed! It’s like, oh my god, I hate feeling controlling.


BAKER: I feel that way about so much of my music where I don’t want them to be affirmed in the wallowing way, that that is an okay way to feel forever. But I was going to say when [Lucy] said I don’t want to make everything about gender, I know how you feel and you start to feel annoying when you return to any topic too often... which is also a function of being socialized not to bother anyone... but that’s precisely it! It makes you timid; it makes you feel like you’re obliged to be accommodating. [Sigh] There were at least one or two moments on Turn Out the Lights where I wanted to craft a nuanced song that had very dismal, bleak things but also a provision for hope, because when I put out Sprained Ankle, I was so immediately characterized as Sad Girl.

I’m really interested in that characterization, because all of you seem saddled with this label of being a “Sad Girl” because of the music you make.


BAKER: And it’s not even just the Sad Girl thing, it can be even more specific than that. Like [Lucy], you said a few days ago that your stereotype was books, apparently?

DACUS: [Laughs] My whole brand is “books.”

BAKER: But that’s the thing, I think when it comes to female artists, people have so much more of a propensity to characterize [women] as this one dimensional thing, when...


[Phoebe makes a disgusted face.]

Do you want to say something, Phoebe?

BAKER: Go ahead.

BRIDGERS: Well, [there’s] the amount of times that question two of an interview—and it’s 100 percent of the time with a male journalist—is: “You seem, uh, more chipper and like you have more of a personality than ‘the dark songs person!’” Or one time, a label, when I was like 18, was pursuing me and they said, “Yeah, we just want you to tweet more Elliott Smith lyrics because your Twitter is stupid.”


DACUS: [Gasps]

BRIDGERS: They didn’t say that exactly, but they said, “You write a lot of silly stuff online. We want people to see the depth of you and your songs in your internet presence.” And I was like, what the fuck!

Like, be more Livejournal.

BAKER: The thing is, they don’t want more depth! They want more of the brand which they’re trying to create, which is in fact so shallow.


DACUS: Yeah, I had a label once who really early on, before I had anyone on my team period, get on the phone with me and say, “What we’d really love to do with you is help you find your story and consolidate what’s going on with you.”

BRIDGERS: [Laughing] Please consolidate your personality.

DACUS: This was a pretty major label and they were like, “We do this with all of our artists.” It sounded good, like, play on your strengths. They told me the story of one of their artists who was this robust person and they said they picked things [to focus on], like her hair was a big part of her iconography; they said they got other people to be the producers so she could just focus on the writing. Basically, they were saying it would be good for [me] to be simplified into something really tangible thing for other people, which I guess is like a marketing ploy, and would be good for a start-up company who, I don’t know, was selling mattresses.


[All laugh]

But even though art is something to make money off of, it doesn’t mean you can treat it like something you’re going to buy at Target.


BRIDGERS: Especially when it’s something as dark as mental health. It makes me so sad when people come up to me and are like, Come to tonight’s show, even though what I usually do is stay inside with my crippling anxiety, ha ha ha! We’re the same! And I’m like, let’s talk about that. I don’t want it to be a Forever 21 t-shirt that’s like, “I’m Sad AF.” I don’t want to sell people the idea that wallowing in your own misery is the thing. I feel very conflicted about merch that’s like that because one, talking about [mental health] is amazing and relatively new in the grand scheme of things. But also, monetizing it in a way that’s like, picking things and [saying], “Yeah, that’s your thing”... I don’t know, I had a couple of dark conversations with labels, similarly. I don’t know why I keep bringing up Elliott Smith, but it means what it means, but [people said], “You should do an Elliott Smith karaoke night that you host!” It’s like, you just want to sell depression in a funny way.


BAKER: And then, the converse of that is you start to develop a reactionary unwillingness to share dark songs. I’ll go through the trouble of crafting a nuanced, hopeful song that still comes across sad. You start to censor yourself, like you don’t want to write a violent song, even though this imagery serves what you’re trying to convey [because you’re] at the risk of being pigeonholed.

DACUS: Like, you’ve probably seen people posting, “Going to see the queens of the Sad Girl Club” [about boygenius]. But I actually have one sad song! “Historians” is the only sad song. Other songs are hard, but they’re about confidence and getting through it and I think it’s because people think emotional girls are sad. That’s the emotion we can allow for girls, that’s the emotion we can understand.


I wonder as well, I feel like there’s a tendency to characterize women artists as having their craft come strictly from their emotions, but with male artists, people are more inclined to recognize their process as they sat down and wrote and composed a song. But with women, it’s talked about as if it just pours out of them. 

BRIDGERS: It is crazy, and it’s like delicate, like a flower. Like, nobody could possibly be bothered with producing their own thing because if they focus on too many things, it’s not going to be as good if they’re just free.


BAKER: When really, if you look at some amazing poets like Neko Case, Gillian Welch, their craftsmanship is maybe the most important part of their musicianship, and their dedication and the ways in which they’re a part of every aspect of forming a song. It’s not like women are this raw, magical force that then needs to be harnessed.

Regarding how the process worked in the studio, that you each brought in a finished song and then a not as finished song, it sounds kind of like a workshop. I wonder how much each of you used the boygenius project to push your songwriting?


DACUS: Oh hell yeah, it was for pushing. For me, the second song I brought in was “Salt in the Wound,” which I wrote in the studio, day two. I think it was a product of the place. We played it live once now and Julien is doing this ripping solo that I would have never allowed on my album, but it’s my favorite moment and you didn’t even want to do it.

BAKER: In the studio, I was like, this is cheesy.

DACUS: And we were like [wags finger] nuh, uh, uh. You have to do this. And you too, [Phoebe], were like, I’ve never belted this high at the end of my range, and me and Julien were just fist-bumping while you were recording.


BRIDGERS: Because at the end of the take, I’d be like, oh my god, I’m so sorry, it was horrible.

DACUS: And I’d be screaming. So that felt like a true victory, to me.

I wanted to ask as well about the concept of “the boygenius,” the dude who’s been told his whole life that he’s a genius. How do you deal with those men in your life, or how have you dealt with those personalities in your life?


BAKER: I feel like previously, I have either deferred to them out of, I don’t think fear is the right word, but discomfort and intimidation. It’s a feeling that’s sort of like being gaslighted into believing that your opinion is not legitimate, so then you just minimize yourself in order to accommodate that person. Now I feel like there have been situations where I just exit the relationship or interaction.

DACUS: I want to say deference is the initial thing that happens. The next step is deletion, like you don’t interact with that type of person. Next step, if you’ve got the energy, is engagement. Because I think a lot of boygeniuses are just ignorant and don’t know.


BRIDGERS: And it’s fun to have the confidence to kind of push back because it’s fun seeing the expression of: this has never happened! It’s so rewarding to me. God, the amount of times recently since this project, because I’ve been learning just to speak up more from you guys, is the amount of times I’ve heard [says in a nerdy voice], “What an inspired idea!” And it’s just with this tinge of, I’m amazed! You see the blank expression of, oh, an idea that wasn’t mine.

DACUS: The only way to diffuse that thing once it’s implanted in someone is to compassionately and lovingly welcome them to... reality.

Pop Culture Reporter, Jezebel


Pitchfork live-streamed their concert last night, with any luck they will be fully uploading it once they get permissions on the final product.

What a show, what a performance by all three. The only true downside was the boygenuis set, in that it was so short. I cant wait to hear more music from the collaboration of these three.

Special shout out to whoever was in charge of lighting and a big YOU WERE AMAZING to their violinist Camille (if i remember correctly).